I’ve nothing against tall buildings, I can fully appreciate architects and structural engineers after studying all those years whilst their brains are at their most fertile and their bodies at their strongest, wanting to let the world know that they are free, to stake their mark and are able to take the human race to new heights. I can fully appreciate how tall buildings can brand a city, help with inward investment and tourism. I’m also fully aware of the space pressures on many of our cities and the high land values that promote tall buildings.
I can also appreciate wanting to live in high rises. There is a real attraction in having an apartment in Trellik Tower in West London but for most its not about living in Goldfinger’s trendy icon, its about space standards and natural light. Planners and architects used to understand that if people are going lose their private gardens and yards, lose their ability to chat over the fence, or to sneak a peak at Mrs Bunce’s collection of glass blown swans when she forgets to close her net curtains and have to suffer lifts that smell of piss, then you have to give people something in return. That something was typically large (Parker Morris and more) spaces and large windows, resulting in large, light filled spaces.
You might still get large, airy light filled high rise apartments if your part of the crowd that set up The Urban Task Force and continually espouses the notion that “we must start to live densely like our European neighbours”. But it’s OK if you a member of The Urban Task Force and you can afford to live in a loft apartment overlooking The Thames, with a concierge, secure parking in the basement, a lap pool and gym and a choice of a Conran or Carluccio restaurant next door, not to mention the weekend home in Provence. But I can assure you that up and down the country this modern urban living is not what the average apartment dweller is getting. They are getting pokey flats (up to 12 per cent smaller than in 1990), with cheap pokey windows a result of daft planning making peoples lives worse and allowing housebuilders to rake it in… but that’s another story).
All this about “living more densely like our European neighbours” should be taken with a pinch of salt. For those that have travelled to recent developments like the Calatraver Twisted Tower in Malmo, or the wonderful reclamation project on Ijberg in Amsterdam or the predominantly social housing new Kronsberg extension to Hanover will have seen that they are set in wonderful public and civic spaces where residents can get outside, can sit, can play, can walk With old high, dense developments like De Bourcy in Paris the gardens are magnificent. You certainly wouldn’t feel like a battery hen living in these well thought out places.
Part of my childhood was spent in Queens Park Flats, a large high rise development of council housing in Blackburn where my memories don’t consist of a life indoors but rather an adventure filled outdoor life, sliding down man made mini hills on cardboard boxes, playing in the stream that led to a small lake, making use of purpose made spaces for football and cricket. It was a fantastic place to live whether you lived in a flat or a house because we had been given a place with things to do.
Queens Park Flats, Blackburn
Where today can families live in high rises and have these kind of amenities? Instead we offer John Rocha designed atriums and Ben de Lisi soft furnishings for the designer label junkies and “efficient “ buildings for parents to invest in and their kids to live whist they are at uni. Our cities are becoming full of tall apartment blocks where no families want to live resulting at best in monocultural ghettos of single people or couples (who move out to the suburbs once baby comes along). At worst they become ghost towns at night, with apartment blocks with just the odd light on with the owners not out on the town but rather in their homes in Hong Kong or Dublin. Owners that are not doing “buy to let” but rather “buy to invest and leave empty “because the stock market hasn’t been performing that well… thank God for the recent resurgence in stocks and shares and thanks the British Public for re stating your love of gardens and outdoor space. Its great to see these apartment developments up and down the country being mothballed and its great to hear of housebuilders rapidly trying to revisit planning applications to change their mix to counter the recent swing from houses to apartments. CABE’s “Housing Audit” findings lists some of the very good , good, average and poor examples of housing quality and shows some not very surprising results with lower density developments generally scoring much higher in terms of liveability and popularity than high density ones.Additionally CABE’s “What House Buyers Want” findings do not gel with high rise living.
With growing world populations we have to” learn to live more densely” but architects and planners need to learn that humans aren’t battery hens, that they have a duty to help design out anti social behaviour and obesity and to start delivering “places” that we all can really live in and this includes, and don’t start sneering, neighbourhood typologies that offer a suburban culture and lifestyle that is popular.